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The great wheatgrass bake-off.

The Great Wheatgrass Bake-Off

Taste testers have discovered a secret that cows have known for a long time - wheatgrass tastes good.

Food panelists liked the appearance, texture, and flavor of cookies and muffins baked with intermediate wheatgrass flour. They also enjoyed bread made from wheatgrass flour that was blended with conventional wheat flours.

ARS chemist Robert Becker at Albany, California, says the tests are an early indication of how well products made from this relative of bread wheat might fare with choosy consumers in marketplaces of the future.

The grain gets its name from its height - intermediate between two other kinds of wheatgrass.

Intermediate wheatgrass is currently grown for hay, or planted on pastures and ranges grazed by cattle, sheep, or horses. Seed prices range from about fifty cents to $1.25 a pound, depending on demand.

Wildlife also like wheatgrass - rabbits and deer eat the tender green shoots of young plants.

For the Albany experiments, more than 50 taste testers sampled baked goods prepared by food technologist Den-Shun Huang (now at the California Wheat Commission Laboratory in Woodland). He used 15 percent intermediate wheatgrass flour, 80 percent whole wheat flour, and 5 percent wheat gluten to bake breads that resemble whole grain loaves. Wheatgrass gave the breads a distinctive, nutlike taste.

Huang relied on wheatgrass flour for flavorful muffins, and wheatgrass plus oatmeal for soft chocolate chip/oatmeal cookies. He used 50 percent wheatgrass flour to make banana bread, which had a mildly banana-nut flavor and was moist but not soggy.

Becker, along with Peggy A. Wagoner of the Rodale Institute Research Center, Kutztown, Pennsylvania, and former ARS technician Grace D. Hanners orchestrated the study and related experiments that probed the grain's nutritional value. Those tests showed that wheatgrass kernels have 20 percent protein - about 1-1/2 times more than conventional wheats.

For growers, wheatgrass' lifespan gives it an unbeatable advantage over commercial wheats. Wheatgrass is a perennial, meaning that the original field can produce a new grain crop each year for at least 3 and sometimes 10 or more years without replanting. Commercial wheats, in contrast, are annuals. Like oats and rye, they live only 1 year and so require yearly seeding and tilling.

For marginal sites - such as hilly, erosion-prone land that can't withstand the wear and tear of annual crop production - wheatgrass might be a promising future option as an alternative grain crop.

As a perennial, it would provide year-round cover that protects soils from the erosion of wind and rain. In addition, plant regrowth after grain harvest could supply pasture for grazing animals.

Growers who opt to plant perennials on difficult sites might expect savings in fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and fuel, too. Maintaining a stand of perennials requires less of those materials than are needed to raise consecutive stands of annual grains.

Wheatgrass is unlikely to compete directly with today's commercial wheats, however. That's because wheat is the only grain that can be made into a dough that rises and provides light, fluffy baked goods.

There are other reasons why Becker and colleagues don't expect amber waves of wheatgrass for flour to spring up overnight. For one thing, yields must be boosted. Today's top-yielding wheatgrasses produce only about 500 pounds of grain per acre, as opposed to about 2,000 pounds from an acre of commercial wheat.

That's because wheatgrasses have been bred for forage, not for grain, explains ARS geneticist John D. Berdahl. Grain varieties produce seedheads loaded with fat kernels. A prized forage grass, in contrast, yields lots of stems and leaves. Boosting grain yield of wheatgrass might take at least 10 years, Berdahl estimates.

"Higher yields should improve the chances that wheatgrass might someday be a grain crop growers could raise economically," says Becker. "Right now, however, the economics are still borderline."

Besides higher yields, they also need advice - based on solid experience - about how to grow a hardy, productive crop. Peggy Wagoner and her co-workers are tackling that problem in test plots at the Rodale Institute.

They're monitoring hundreds of experimental wheatgrasses, including many from Berdahl at Mandan and others from the ARS Plant Introduction Station at Pullman, Washington.

Markets, and practical pointers for those who buy wheatgrass grain, mill wheatgrass flour, or bake with it, must also be developed. All that can happen, Becker says, if there's enough interest in building a new future for this crop.

PHOTO : Baked goods made from all-wheatgrass flour and from various blends with wheat flour.

PHOTO : Wheatgrass seeds, smaller and lighter than those of commercial wheats, can be ground into flour or cooked whole, like rice. (K-4082-5)

PHOTO : Harvesting wheatgrass from experimental plots at the Rodale Institute Research Center in Pennsylvania.
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Title Annotation:used in bread, cookies and muffins
Author:Wood, Marcia
Publication:Agricultural Research
Date:Jul 1, 1991
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